Daniel Lemire's blog

, 2 min read

The hubris of teachers

Today, kids left and right carry the label of some learning disability. Instead of telling kids that they are dumb or lazy, we narrow it down to some problem. It is clearly progress on the face of it. However, when I see that, in some schools, over 10% of all kids have received some kind of disability label by the time they graduate… I worry. There might be some hubris at work. Do the experts know as much as they claim to know?

A favorite pet peeve of mine is the importance we put on grades as predictors of success. I have spent a great deal of time reviewing graduate students for scholarships in national competitions. I had a nearly perfect GPA myself. I was expecting the undergraduate GPA of students to be strongly correlated with the success at the doctoral level. What I found time and time again was that the correlation was weaker than I expected. Students who do very well as undergraduates often fail to shine as graduate students, and students who disappoint as undergraduates can sometimes do remarkably well as PhD students.

Given a choice, schools should prefer students students who got better GPAs. However, I would abstain from predicting the performance of a given student in graduate school given his GPA.

It is not that grades and tests do not matter, it is that we should use caution and humility when interpreting them. It is relatively easy to make statistical predictions, but it is very hard to translate these statistical predictions into reliable individual predictions.

In my opinion, the greatest mathematician of all times was probably Galois. Coming out of nowhere, he created a deep, useful and engaging mathematical theory that is still, today, viewed as highly original. You are using technology directly derived from Galois’ work today, even though he died in 1832 when he was 20 years old. However, we find that teachers regularly complained about Galois’ uneven results, lack of application, and so on. It seems that he could not focus for long on what his teachers wanted him to do. He was a pain as a student.

This is not uncommon, Gurdon, winner of the 2012 Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medecine, was similarly a difficult student:

“His work has been far from satisfactory… he will not listen, but will insist on doing his work in his own way… I believe he has ideas about becoming a Scientist; on his present showing this is quite ridiculous, if he can’t learn simple Biological facts he would have no chance of doing the work of a Specialist, and it would be a sheer waste of time on his part, and of those who have to teach him.” (source)

Everyone should use caution when judging others, but I believe that educators should be especially careful. They may not understand nearly as much as they think about the mind of their students.